Looking for money for college? The Klingon Language Institute has a scholarship for students pursuing language study, earthly or alien; the United States Bowling Congress gives grants to promising young bowlers; and the Ayn Rand Institute rewards essay writers who are adept at deconstructing her novels, such as “The Fountainhead” and “Atlas Shrugged.”
As college tuitions soar and median household incomes decline, many aspiring college students face a daunting gap. Lacking well-stocked college savings plans or wealthy grandparents, they are turning to a vast and idiosyncratic private industry to help them get to college.
Nearly 2 million undergraduates used $6.2 billion in private scholarships — aside from college athletic scholarships and college grants — to help pay for college in the 2011-12 school year, according to a federal survey of more than 95,000 students. That was more than twice the amount of such scholarship funding that 1.1 million undergraduates reported using four years earlier.
The increased reliance on scholarships means there are more students for whom college application season blends into an extended, anxious period of essay writing and grant deadlines. It’s all done in the hope that financial-aid decisions — which will be mailed during the next few weeks — won’t derail plans to attend their dream schools.
But unlike college applications, which require a relatively predictable mix of grades, course work and extracurriculars, what one needs to obtain a scholarship is often far more elusive.
“For some scholarships, you have to be African American or Indian. . . . For some, you have to write with your left hand,” said Vikaya Powell, a senior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria. “Sometimes, it’s just the weirdest stuff.”
Powell, 17, amped up her scholarship search in December, after her mother, a single parent, was laid off from her job at a bank. Powell wants to be the first in her immediate family to receive a degree. She has her heart set on Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina.
The out-of-state school is not likely to be Powell’s most affordable option. So she spends hours each week on Web sites such as Scholarships.com, combing through criteria and looking for cash. Scholarship shopping has become a hobby.
On a recent afternoon, she reviewed some of the many announcements that she had rejected. They included:
● The Flag Manufacturers Association of America, which is looking for the best video about what the flag means to you. (Too technical, she said.)
●The National Cattlemen's Foundation rewards outstanding students who want to work in the beef industry. (“I eat beef,” she had thought hopefully, before reading the fine print.)
●The Dutchcrafters Amish Furniture Heritage Scholarship is seeking students who merge their cultural heritage with their vocational aspirations. (“I can’t figure this one out,” she said.)
There are an estimated 1.5 million scholarships in the United States, or at least that’s the best guess for the sprawling industry, said Mark Kantrowitz, an expert in financing college who created Fastweb, a free online scholarship matching service. Kantrowitz now works at Edvisors, an Internet student resource center.
Many scholarships reward promising academic, athletic or artistic talents. Some promote corporate brands or social causes, or they carry out the particular interests of any number of groups. They all aim to advance the most American of ideals: a college education that can change the course of someone’s life.
There are scholarships for future beekeepers, winemakers and candy technologists. The American Sheep Industry Association rewards students who sew or knit clothes made of wool, and the makers of Duck-brand duct tape have a scholarship for those who make the most colorful and ornate prom dresses — out of duct tape.
The 14-year-old contest introduces duct tape to young customers. It also fills a niche in the scholarship universe, said Mary Kate Rosfelder, product manager for Duck Tape at ShurTech Brands in northern Ohio. A lot of awards are geared “to the smartest kids or the jocks,” she said. “We thought, ‘Why not create a fun scholarship contest for kids who are fun and creative?’ ”
Little People of America offers scholarships to promising students who are 4 feet 10 inches tall or less; Tall Clubs International offers financial aid to women taller than 5-foot-10 and men taller than 6-foot-2.
Some of the best known scholarships, like the Gates Millennium, pay large sums and go to outstanding students with the most compelling personal stories.
The vast majority, though, offer checks for $500 here or $2,000 there.
The Internet has made the search for and sorting of scholarships far easier. But many students and counselors say it’s still an overwhelming, time-consuming and stressful endeavor that turns off many of the students it’s supposed to help.
After a lot of digging — and with help from a personal mentor and some school counselors — Powell winnowed her list to nearly three dozen scholarships, including offers of aid from the Daughters of the American Revolution, two college sororities and the Ronald McDonald House Charities.
The largest one is a $20,000 renewable scholarship through the United Negro College Fund and the smallest a $500 book grant from the Northern Virginia Urban League. Most applications required information about her grade-point average, SAT scores and volunteer work and essays about her career aspirations.
But a few have different requirements. She is cleaning out her closets so she can bring used clothes to a local H&M store for a shot at a “Clothes Recycling” scholarship. She is also preparing for a quiz about fire sprinkler safety in the hopes of winning a check from the American Fire Sprinkler Association.
To many students, a few hundred dollars can seem paltry when compared with tuition bills in the tens of thousands of dollars — or the effort of writing yet another essay about a tough obstacle they had to overcome or the causes and effects of pollution. So most don’t try for these types of scholarships.
“They don’t yet understand the value of a dollar,” said Gregory Forbes, director of counseling at T.C. Williams. That lesson comes when “their student loan bills come in,” he said.
There also are a lot of students who assume that they won’t be qualified for scholarships or that college is simply unaffordable.
First lady Michelle Obama went to T.C. Williams in February to dispel such ideas by encouraging students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to see whether they are eligible for need-based federal grants, loans or work-study funding that might put college within reach.
“Don’t leave money on the table,” she told them.
Henry Lopez, who graduated last year from J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, did not take any scholarship opportunities for granted. An undocumented student who came from Guatemala when he was 4, he was not eligible for federal loans or in-state tuition. And many scholarships disqualify noncitizens. But he did have a 4.3 grade-point average and a career interest in computer science.
He gave up playing sports partway through senior year so he could focus on scholarship applications. “I went crazy,” he said.
He applied for 22, including several local and science-oriented scholarships. He won about a dozen, including a $3,000 first prize from the Done Vida campaign for a two-minute video he produced to promote organ donation.
The biggest boon was an institutional merit grant from George Mason University that covers his full tuition for four years.
Very few people — not even 1 percent — pay for the entire cost of college through scholarships and grants, Kantrowitz estimates. The “common thread” among those who do win a lot of scholarship money is that they pursue as many opportunities as they can, he said.
T.C. Williams counselors help students save time and avoid the frustration of endless searching by posting scholarship information on the school’s Web site. They also encourage students to apply for less competitive community scholarships through local banks, churches, car dealerships and Rotary clubs.
Alexandria’s only high school also has its own scholarship fund.
“We want to give these kids every opportunity to go to college,” said Beth Lovain, executive director of the Scholarship Fund of Alexandria.
Powell expects to hear back from the Alexandria scholarship, and many others, in the next few weeks. Even if she doesn’t get a single award this spring, she said, she plans to keep trying.
“It’s like applying for free money,” she said. “It’s a chance.”